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The Texture of the Air

An Excerpt from The End of San Francisco

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CONGRATULATIONS to (former) escort and rights activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore for winning the Lambda Literary Award for The End of San Francisco. Also, feel free to read our archived interview with him here.


Sure, here I am again walking through the artificially dark halls of men madly projecting masculinity at any cost because that’s what gets them action. But the point is that it no longer matters: suddenly I’m so present. It doesn’t make sense really, but I’m laughing and grabbing guys to kiss them on the neck, then I’m devouring this one guy’s ear, tongue tasting the hills and valleys and he’s hugging me or maybe I’m mostly hugging him but whatever it feels good and starts a trend because then there’s the guy with his head nestled at my chin, the few words we exchange are not exactly going anywhere that resembles connection but that’s okay too or no, it’s not okay, but it’s okay.

You can really hear me gulping then the guy’s jerking again, then back to my mouth, throat muscles and everything it’s like this is the only thing I want to do for the rest of my life. In the hallway, there’s an influx of guests because it’s almost 2:00 a.m., a group of three guys who look younger and trendier than the usual and I’m cruising the one with a bald head and pegged jeans but I think he’s intimidated because of his friends. Then there’s a tweaker who’s a regular, he’s kind of smiling I appreciate the smile, and there’s the guy who was chasing me earlier, and then someone impossibly hot walks right down the stairs, dark hair with sideburns, red shirt, I motion him into a booth but he looks confused, then I say come in and he follows. This is the best moment really, when everything flows from one guy to the next I mean this is the potential of public sex, it’s why I can’t possibly give it up, even if my chances are 50 to 1 to get there I’ll still keep trying. This guy wants to know what I’m on, I’m familiar with his discomfort. Until I grab his head and it’s all about making out in the booth and then later I’ve even got him pressed against the wall in the hallway, liquor breath maybe he wants some of what I’ve got I’ve got something yes I’ve got something I’ve got it now I’ve got it yes please don’t take it away.

Later, much later, I’m on craigslist salivating over cocks in underwear without text, cocks out of underwear looking for mouths, hopefully mine, but I’m only sending photos of myself with personality: the one of me with curls sculpted in place and I’m biting into a piece of toast. Of course I should’ve just headed over to the Nob Hill Theatre video booths, it’s Saturday night and at least there’d be someone there, or I could walk in circles through that hallway but now it’s 2:08 a.m., the video booths close at 2:30 so maybe I’d get there with five minutes to use the bathroom, blow my nose, walk around in an almost-circle then back up the stairs and out the door. Then walking home through all the drunk tourists and desperate addicts waiting for change. In the background, there’s some sort of traffic signal out of whack, chirping in threes.

On the free phone sex line, this guy says where are you? I say downtown. He says downtown—you think the whole world is San Francisco, don’t you? I say no, I don’t think the whole world is San Francisco. He says you think the whole world is San Francisco—you came here to be gay, didn’t you? I say I didn’t come here to be gay.

I don’t say: I came here to be queer.

He says why couldn’t you stay in the town where you came from and stick it out? He’s screaming at me like he’s daring me to be a man, why couldn’t I be a man and stick it out.

I change my tone of voice: bitch you want my load, ooh girl my sweet sweet honey load? He hangs up. I’m actually really worked up, why am I so worked up?

I call the line again, and there he is. Hi sweetheart, he says. Sweetheart?

This time he wants to fuck me, he wants to do it the way it’s supposed to be done—first he gets me all warmed up, then fingers, then I’m begging him. But you sound like you’re on meth, he says—are you on meth, you’re on meth aren’t you you’re on meth I can tell you’re on meth aren’t you. I say I’m not on anything—I don’t even drink. He says you’re drinking, you sound a little loopy, I can tell you’re drinking. I say I am a little loopy, but I’m not drinking. Our time on the free line runs out and I’m spared this guy’s ranting, then a few guys who like to hang up really quick when the tiniest thing is wrong like how you say hello and then this guy is back again, he says I like your voice, I can tell you’re really sweet—you are really sweet, aren’t you?

I’m waiting for the bus, and some guy stares right at me, but when I look for his eyes again he’s already past—I’m looking at his back. No one turns around anymore, that’s what you do online, hurting your neck again. I’m wondering about the difference between cruising someone’s look and cruising. I always assume they’re clocking the fashion, studying the hair, taking it all in, making notes for the folks back home. But what about when the eyes open wide with excitement—is that an appreciation of color and contrast, texture and pattern, or the possibility of our lips interlocked? I don’t know if I’ll ever figure it out.

But now I’m back at the Nob Hill Theatre. The guy at the front counter says hello like I was just there yesterday, the problem is that even though it’s been a month it still feels that way. Walking around in circles thinking I should leave now I really should leave now I’ve been here too long I should leave now. You want to know about the porn: Dutch boys barebacking—that one’s okay until they start to look too skinny and anxious, piled one next to the other in fucking pairs, a brothel importing fresh Eastern Europeans. Then there’s big-budget LA porn, puffed-up guys with insanely big dicks: is that really—and no, really? My favorite is two guys cruising on an airplane, one guy’s jerking off and the other guy’s looking anxiously over his shoulder at the imagined passengers, his girlfriend asleep between them but then I accidentally switch to some guy wrapped in latex, whimpering, and when I’m back the two guys on the plane are naked in another row of seats and where are the other passengers? It’s not exciting anymore.

I leave, and outside this guy does a double-take, turns around and says well you’re certainly a faggot, a faggot with a circus for pants you’re a faggot if I’ve ever seen a faggot. He’s so close that I’m laughing. All of his gestures are reading straight, but he says: Where are you going? I say I don’t know. He says I’m going somewhere to do drugs. His eyes bugging in and out and he’s swaying, the tweaker across the street is yelling I took care of you! This guy says no, I took care of you!

He touches the front of my pants—why are you in such a good mood, you’re a mess your fly’s open, are you a stripper here? I’m laughing, zipping my fly. I say it won’t last that long, I’ll get home and I’ll be depressed. I grab him playfully and kiss the back of his neck, he sort of turns around and then I kiss his neck from the front too. He says what are you on?

I’m laughing and he says oh—everything, what do you mean what am I on—everything! The tweaker is yelling from the distance, this guy yells GO AWAY. I say who’s that tweaker? He says I’m gonna hit you in the head, and he holds two plastic bottles in the air, I step back. I say what’s that? He says silicon—I say what are you going to do with silicon? He says I work at Lucas Films, I’m gonna hit you in the head—go away.

I start walking downhill and maybe he has friends who show up and they’re laughing and pointing in my direction. I’m wondering if he thought I was crazy because I was flirting with him after he kept calling me faggot. I guess that was kind of weird, but cruising spaces are barely different than some homophobe on the street, demanding your adherence to the worst norms of masculinity unless you want your head bashed in I mean a blowjob. I’m walking slowly to appreciate the few minutes I have before collapse, taking pictures of the way light reflects through the glittery letters on the Victoria’s Secret window, just the colors up close like distorted chandeliers. Then I’m at the bus stop looking at those terrible digital displays they’ve installed that tell you how long you have to wait but it’s always longer—this one says: NEXT BUS IN 72 MINUTES.

The next day there’s my body and the way the sun makes me squint into exhaustion until even the fresh air is too much. I’m somewhere between everything and nothing, and it’s something about the way the air hits me so cool and moist I’m flooded with memories of when I first came to San Francisco, that time on Haight Street when I was sitting on the sidewalk writing in my journal and Sam walked up, he thought I was a Haight Street kid and sure, there I was sitting on the sidewalk in all my dyed-hair glory, telling him how crystal made me so sad I didn’t want to do crystal. He invited me home, I can’t remember if this was the first time we’d had sex or if it had already happened—he said I don’t have to fuck you it’s not something I have to do. I wanted to get it over with I would never have told him it was the first time. I was embarrassed—I was already nineteen. The room got so hot it was like I was burning up, his dick slipped out he said oh there’s blood on the condom. I said it’s been a while and then he showed me different literary magazines, I liked the way his face got all red.

Sometimes I walk on the streets so gorgeous with decaying old buildings and other people’s memories, I stare into any eyes that come my way to see if they are those eyes but it so rarely happens that way anymore. Everything has been emptied out. It’s common to lament the loss of 1970s gay sexual culture, but I have no nostalgia for something I never experienced. I actually miss the possibilities of the 1990s, when I did experience the hope of transcendence through an engagement with gestures of public desire. Of course it was never enough, the connections far sparser than they should have been, even in the crowded spaces clambering for that embrace of cock down throat or hand on neck or tongue to tongue, dark sky up above or the back walls of some bar like a shelter: when I cruised, and it was actually fun.

But now I’m on craigslist—I figure why not post what I’m looking for, I mean post that I don’t know what I’m looking for: “Maybe a childlike vulnerability in my eyes there’s a gentleness.” I add pictures of a glowing fluorescent tube on a black ceiling, red lights on another ceiling, blurred colors, the back of my head with my orange paisley sweater. One person responds, I’m not sure if I’m attracted to him but I say so anyway. He doesn’t reply. Then I’m looking at the postings again, again and again and again until I realize I need to ban myself until next year—maybe I should try two years, but I like to pick goals that I’ll succeed at. I’ve already banned myself from Blow Buddies until January, that was back in June and I thought maybe I’d get to January and never want to go again. I thought maybe I’d have figured out something else. I guess I still have a month and a half, but right now I’m thinking I’ll be there as soon as the new year comes around. At least if I go back, then I’ll know whether I have to ban myself again.

Waking up from a dream where my father’s showing me how arousal works, his dick grinding into his pants he’s thrusting like he’s fucking someone in his jeans it’s like a movie where he’s standing in the sun the whole time, everything a ’70s porn model could want, the light shining down I reach for his hand to place it against my dick and that’s when I come, just like that in my own jeans like his. Waking up, I’m thinking when was the last time I wore jeans? Blue jeans, only for tricks or briefly when I was thirteen, I acid-washed them with Clorox but they never looked right. Really I’m thinking at least he’s dead so that can’t happen, but then I realize I actually did come, not just in the dream, this stickiness between my legs that makes me desperate and angry—desperate because why can’t I just have good sex, angry because here he is again he’ll always be here.

So I’m at the Nob Hill Theatre, wondering if there’s anything I can gain from this experience of standing against the wall that’s most comfortable, now that I’m sick of walking in circles. Maybe I’ll feel better if I walk around and sing along to the music: “You’re as COLD as ice, you’re as cold as ice, you’re as cold as ice, I know—oh.” Right into the eyes of the guy with curly hair who won’t look at me after that.

But the real story is the boy who’s working the register at the health food store, I’m looking at him and he’s looking at me and even if he doesn’t look straight there are all sorts of art school straight boys working at health food stores and sometimes even cruising me until I get up close and they say: Hey man. But this boy’s definitely watching me while he’s ringing up someone’s groceries, distracted by focusing on what I’m saying—what am I saying? Something about the music and don’t they get to choose it because the woman ringing me up is complaining why not Motown, a customer is requesting Motown he’s from Detroit. Meanwhile, my gaze shifts to the other register, I should’ve gone over there but it was too crowded. Instead I wave like I’m even farther away and say hi! Hi, he says. I say you’re really hot—do you want to go on a date? All that matters is that I say exactly what I’m thinking and then I feel that rush like I’m a little kid and I can just be me and it’s okay.

I’m trying to get to the place where my sexuality doesn’t feel so separate from the visions that inspire me, where it’s not just moments so charged like a sudden burst of everything I need. Like I’m filled with possibility it’s me I’m everywhere at once. Except there are rules and I know them—don’t talk don’t smile don’t laugh. Sex with guys who can’t deal with any exchange past the physical, sometimes not even the physical. If we talk afterwards, and I say my name’s Mattilda, often these guys demand: What’s your real name? As if they’ve never heard of self-determination.

Sometimes I wish I could let go of sex, maybe desire would become something else like lying in the grass and holding the sky. But then I’m at Steamworks, wondering what it would mean if we all started crying at the same time. This super-skinny guy comes up to me and says I find you extremely attractive, it would please me if I could kiss you—overly formal and awkward I’m guessing English isn’t his first language. I kiss him on the lips and he asks me if I want to go to his room—no, I say—I’m tired, I think I’m going to leave. Then he comes back around, this nervousness that feels submissive even in its assertiveness, he says do you want to go into my room and rest? I can tell that rest means he’ll be touching me super-softly like I’m a bird, which is what he’s doing now and it makes me tense but I say that’s sweet, but no thanks.

Maybe there is a sweetness to him, at least in the way that he doesn’t seem shady although part of that might just be inexperience—he looks awfully young, what will he be like in twenty years? And I can’t help thinking about how maybe he’s performing Asianness and whether that’s for the benefit of my perceived whiteness, how this relates to a masculinity I suddenly embody in these spaces and whether all of this forms the reasons I’m not attracted to him. Or whether it’s just the way he touches me.

After I eat something, I’m walking around again until I notice the guy with the shaved head—there’s something about the way he’s breathing that means he’s breathing for me I mean differently for me and I realize he was cruising me really hard earlier but from the distance and I wasn’t sure I was feeling anything. Now I’m feeling like I need to get on my knees but I don’t want to be rude and pull his dick away from the guy down below who’s mostly looking at me, I can’t tell if it’s because he wants my dick or because he wants to know if I want to suck this guy’s dick so I try to let him know with my eyes.

The guy from earlier is watching from a distance that’s maybe supposed to be discreet but it just looks weird, I motion him over while I’m hugging this other guy and then he kisses me on the cheek too softly almost like a child it makes me feel awkward I kiss him on the neck anyway then he’s touching me with only the very outer surfaces of his fingertips and I move my head to the other side so he can’t reach. I’m struck by the way language isn’t used in this space and the way I’m imprisoned by that and complicit too, but then he’s gone and I feel shady except then the other guy’s dick is available so that’s all I’m thinking about, way past the point when I should stand up because I’m hurting my neck I mean not now but my neck will hurt later right now it’s just yes, this is what desire feels like I still don’t understand but this is it I know.

I’ve been trying to think of a particular phrase, something like it’s over but grander and more eloquent like the love is gone but I never thought it was love. So I just get stuck trying to figure out how to say that I don’t know if there’s any hope for me in public sex anymore. I do think things have changed, especially the way guys walk around with a shopping list like they’re checking off boxes and that’s the influence of the internet but also maybe I’ve changed. Maybe I need something else.

I understand why so many fags give up on sex, or give up hoping that sex will become anything other than something lost, over and over again this loss or maybe I mean lack, this sense that something is lacking and some people go to great lengths to keep it that way. Others just follow the rules, and the rest of us slowly lose our sense that sex will ever illuminate anything.

When I was a hooker I became so accustomed to performing a certain kind of masculinity, an uncomplicated emotional facade, a clean-cut normalcy, detachment even in the midst of physical passion: How do I get him off? What time is it? Will we be done soon? This also served me in the general world of gay sexual culture. In some ways it used to make me feel hopeful that I could find beauty with people who might shun me in another realm. In some ways it helped that we had little in common except these lips, this tongue, these hands, those eyes, oh this embrace those legs that cock his sweat the texture of his ears his teeth the roof of his mouth that stubble these arms yes these arms: there’s something about the things you can see with that sudden intimacy, the shift of breath and perspective. I never accepted the limitations, and I was always aware they existed in dramatic and desperate ways, but still that embrace maybe it was worth it.

Even with those tricks where I’d start and think oh no, how am I going to do it? And then when I would really go there, deep into the physical connection I mean it could become something we would savor and share and then it was over. He might go back to his job figuring out how to deport undocumented immigrants or how to help multinational corporations plunder indigenous resources, so yes there could be something grotesque about my job serving his needs, but still the way my mind could shift into my body a sudden calm a lightness an opening. What’s shifted now is that I’m not sure any of it is worth the sadness, the distance, the desperation, the yearning for something else, the lack of potential. Now, in the sexual spaces where so much shutting off is required, I find myself exhausted just being there. So exhausted that I can hardly function. And then I can’t figure out what’s desire and what’s loneliness, what’s performance and what’s play. I can’t even figure out what I want.

It’s January and yes, I’m back at Blow Buddies. They’re playing “Here Comes the Rain Again,” but it’s not the Eurythmics it’s a cover of the song with a male vocalist that’s even more overwrought than the original, like you can hear the ocean in the circuit beats and I’m hugging this guy and it’s funny because this is when the kissing gets really good, but it’s still not as good as the music wants it to be. I’m holding on to find what’s next I’m not quite there until he starts scratching my back and that’s what really makes me smile and giggle like I’m humming then he’s kissing my neck my eye resting inside his ear just when “I want to dive into your ocean” comes on again and it’s funny like looking into a conch shell except my eyes are closed so I can feel things better.

Copyright c 2013 by Matilda Bernstein Sycamore

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